Most days I seek to keep a hopeful attitude as I dive into the tasks at hand, but yesterday ended sadly. When an elder saw me wearing my Lincoln Christian University polo shirt last night at church and asked if I had heard the news, I could hardly believe my ears: the Bible college & seminary where I trained for ministry, where I began preaching and serving in local churches, where I met my wife, is making sweeping changes and may sell its property to stave off closing. Due to enrollment declining 50% over the last decade and a $3.5 million deficit, my alma mater is eliminating all non-ministry degree programs, athletics, food service to students and directing them to move from dorms into student apartments where they can make their own meals, and letting 2/3 of the staff go. The news made The Christian Standard and Christianity Today.
Our school was founded in 1944 and trained thousands of young men and women like us for ministry for 78 years, but has “reached the end of our runway” according to the president of the college. They are going to try to survive by keeping the seminary and 2 undergraduate ministry degree programs, possibly selling the property and moving into a single building somewhere, and “will focus recruitment not on 18-year-olds but on older adults who feel called to ministry and need additional theological education.” But what is the future of ministry in America if we do not recruit and train young people to take the places of all those quitting or retiring? I can tell you that the hundreds of churches near colleges like Lincoln will suffer without students to help fill their pulpits; one person commented that their church has been without a pastor for 3 years now. There will be many more to follow.
Lincoln is not alone. Cincinnati Christian University, a sister Bible college where my home church pastor, my major professor, and Christian musician Rich Mullins all graduated, closed 2 years ago after 95 years, and many other Bible colleges without large endowments are in trouble. What’s the problem? In a nutshell: declining enrollment. “Fewer students are seeking ministry degrees immediately upon graduating high school.” Why? Why would a young person (or their parents) pay money and take on debt and spend years training for a career that is itself in crisis and sharp decline? Church attendance in America is in decline, and many churches have closed or are struggling to survive. There aren’t fewer people – there are just fewer people interested in attending and supporting a church. And the COVID pandemic has accelerated this decline by giving people an excuse for not going to church.
Let’s face it – this pandemic is largely over, and could return in various (hopefully weaker) forms forever, but most of the people who stopped coming have not come back. They still go to work or to the grocery store, the home supply store, the barber or hairdresser, the bank, and other places, but not to church. They may watch from home and give from home, but that’s not the same as being there in person, and doesn’t fill the many needs for serving or fellowship or putting an arm around someone for encouragement and praying with them, or welcoming someone new.
That’s why I’m so sad about the news about Lincoln – it’s a sign of the times. If people don’t support their church in person, churches suffer, then young people don’t want to go into ministry, then there are acute shortages of preachers, youth pastors, and worship pastors (just ask around), then churches suffer more.
It doesn’t have to be this way… unless you’re physically unable, if you care about your church, come to church!
Mike Openshaw, Senior Minister